No one knows how the present rioting in Egypt is going to turn out, though it is a safe bet that, in the endess dusty jerry-built tower-blocks ringing Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood is watching and waiting to seize its chance.
British journalist Peter Hitchens wrote recently: “The most potent [Egyptian] opposition movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most popular cause is enraged hatred of the neighbouring State of Israel.” Actually, I think the most popular cause amongst ordinary Egyptians is continuing to get their U.S.-subsidized daily bread. But it’s not ordinary Egyptians who tend to sway events there. If I were a tourist I’d keep well away at the moment.
As in all Muslim countries, the religious and the political can hardly be separated in Egypt. Given this, it is highly significant that, when the Pope spoke out following the latest massacre of Coptic Christians, not only did the Egyptian Government recall its Ambassador to the Vatican, but in addition top Muslim academics stated that they have suspended all dialogue with it.
This decision was announced by Ahmed el-Tayeh, president of al-Azhar University in Cairo and members of the Islamic Research Authority. The news was reported on the website Ahram Online, which is dedicated to covering news of interest to Muslims in the Middle East. A Vatican spokesman said in response that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was “collecting the information needed to adequately understand the situation.”
The news came about a month before a scheduled annual meeting of the joint committee of the Pontifical Council for Dialogue and the Permanent committee of al-Azhar for dialogue Amongst the Monotheistic Religions, established in 1998.
Even before considering the possible outcomes of the political turmoil in Egypt, this story is important because it illustrates the enormity of the gap between Muslim and Christian ways of thinking in the 21st Century — and Egypt is a relatively Westernized country with a modern economy of 80 million people and a history of European contact stretching back to the dawn of European history. The re-opening of the great library at Alexandria has been a conscious effort to provide the world with a showcase of its age-long scholarship and culture. Its governing regime, though unlovely enough, is a U.S. client, and as the experience of Iran indicates, is a good deal better for Western interests than some all-too-possible alternatives, all the more so because it shares borders with Israel and Gaza.
The Pope’s comments were, as might be expected, couched in the most polite and diplomatic language. They could not, by any sane standard, be taken as aggressive or inflammatory. In the wake of the massacre of Copts in Cairo and elsewhere he simply asked governments in the region to adopt effective measures for the protection of religions minorities. The Pope commands no military force and has no Earthly tool but moral persuasion. There is no doubt that a good deal of thought went into the phrasing of the statement so as to neither make the lot of the Copts worse nor to give the appearance of abandoning them — or, for that matter, of abandoning a beleaguered Christianity.
It is impossible to imagine how either a government seeking normal relations with the West or the senior Muslim academics of Egypt could argue with this. And in fact they did not argue: there is an almost refreshingly unambiguous simplicity in their reaction.
The Muslim academics in effect delivered an ultimatum to the Vatican: they would condescend to speak with its representatives only so long as no protest against the killing of Christians was made, that is, so long as the Vatican, as the world’s leading Christian institution and the leading international expression of Christianity, gave up all moral ground.
Plainly, it seems that any suggestion that they might be concerned as to what the rest of the world thinks about this might as well be couched in Martian.
Further, of course, there is a possibility that any overly strong protests by the Vatican will result in further reprisals against the Copts, a whole community of hostages. There is an echo here of the issues raised by the martyrdom of Edith Stein, a Jewish-born Catholic nun and distinguished theologian. When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 Edith Stein was sheltering in a Carmelite convent. When the Dutch bishops made a statement condemning Nazi persecution of Jews, the Nazis in retaliation seized Edith Stein and all other Jewish converts to Christianity in Holland. She perished in an extermination camp.
The case of Edith Stein — and it was by no means unique — reminds one of the appalling difficulties and dilemmas the Vatican faces in attempting to protect or at least speak out for Christians at the mercy of savagely anti-Christian regimes. The strategy that Western Christianity is confronting does not seem particularly hard to understand. To speak out seems bad. To remain silent may be in the long run infinitely worse — that way lies the spiritual and perhaps ultimately the physical death of the West.
And in the meantime, what is President Obama doing about it? With a worse-case situation of much of North Africa going up in smoke, and with British defence forces on the scrap-heap and France looking determinedly after France alone, it appears that any salvation may have to come from the US (Already the British Daily Telegraph is claiming “Egypt is not our business” — they may soon be taught better) . Handling this one may not be easy, and it would put the cleverest, most capable, and most courageous of U.S. Presidents to the test.